The University of Arizona Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum is almost ready to open its doors to the public at its new location in the historic Pima County Courthouse downtown, but the COVID outbreak means the exact opening date is still up in the air.
The museum will showcase more than 2,200 gems and minerals from all over the world and take visitors on a geological walk through Earth’s history.
“People think of Tucson as the center of the gem, mineral and fossil world during our gem shows in January and February,” said Eric Fritz, the manager of the museum. “But we’ve got 49 other weeks of the year. We want this to be a destination for tourists and the local community.”
The museum staff originally planned to open their new space to the public during the 2021 Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, but the grand opening was postponed due to the pandemic. They are still unsure of when they will be able to invite visitors into the museum, as they are waiting until the Pima County Health Department declares it is safe for the community. However, museum staff expect their exhibits to be ready next month.
In the meantime, Fritz said they are using the extra time they have to prepare as an opportunity to “get it exactly right.” With renovations complete, the museum staff is now focused on completing the exhibits and displays.
The museum was originally established at UA in the 1890s. Its collections were housed in cases that moved around campus until 1993 when the collection was moved into the basement of UA’s Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium.
Several years ago, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry approached the UA about moving the collection into the Pima County Courthouse. After receiving an initial donation from Allan Norville on behalf of his late wife, Alfie, a co-founder of the Gem and Jewelry Exchange show, construction on the space began in 2018.
The new and improved museum will have three main galleries focusing on mineral evolution, the minerals native to Arizona and Mexico, and gems and jewelry. Other exhibits will teach visitors about the importance of minerals to the human population and how those minerals are obtained through the process of mining.
“It’s important that people know how we get certain materials and how things are possible in this world,” said Elizabeth Gass, the exhibit specialist at the museum.
The museum will encourage people to directly engage with many of the minerals and gems by allowing them to touch some of the items as well as through a variety of interactive areas scattered throughout the 12,000-square-foot space.
Visitors will start in the Mineral Evolution Gallery that takes people back 4.5 billion years to the origin of the solar system when every planet and asteroid had the same 50 to 60 minerals. After taking visitors to space, the exhibit will focus on Earth’s unique minerals, including some that were discovered by UA scientists. Earth is the only solid planet in our universe that has grown beyond that initial amount to house about 5,600 minerals, Fritz explained. These minerals evolved due to various geological processes alongside biodiversity over billions of years.
After the Mineral Evolution Gallery, visitors can enjoy the Arizona and Mexico Gallery that showcases various minerals native to the Southwest. This section of the museum features a recreation of Arizona’s famous Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee.
The Gemstone Gallery and Treasury section of the museum is a completely new component that will display how minerals are manipulated by humans. Many of the pieces in this gallery are on loan from the Somewhere in the Rainbow gem and jewelry collection.
While the museum will have set exhibits, Fritz explained that they plan to repopulate about 20% of the museum every year.
“We don’t want this to be a one and done,” Fritz said. “We want it to be something that people can come back to and look for what’s new and exciting.”
The fledgling museum recently worked with the UA Foundation to raise money to cover their opening costs through a crowdfund campaign that ended on Feb. 23. Their initial goal was to raise $5,000, but they raised their goal after an anonymous donor agreed to match the up to $5,000 of the funds made after the initial $5,000. In the end, they raised $16,750 for the museum.
“We have a feeling that our museum will be not only a place for education, where people can come and learn something about minerals both on Earth and above, but it’s also really meant to inspire people,” said Fritz. “It’s about inspiring people and showing them how many facets there are to life.”